Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Italy 2 – Ostuni to Matera

We moved off of the Salento peninsula on Saturday 12th February, and towards the end of the day got to Ostuni. It being nearly dark already, we decided to look for another quiet coastal spot for the night, and found some good places around Torre Pozzella, one of the 17th century coastal watchtowers a short way away. Italian youth – we think it is mainly the youth but it was too dark to be sure – have a bizarre habit of driving to and circling around carparks in the early evening, without ever actually stopping or getting out of their cars. We imagine it as some kind of demented outgrowth of the pedestrian passeggiata that takes place in towns, but it can be quite disturbing if you are parked in that carpark at the time. So we moved a kilometre or so, to a dead-end track between agricultural buildings and the sea, where nothing disturbed us all night.

Imagine our surprise, however, on Sunday morning when cars began pulling up at 8 a.m., and men with guns got out. Through a gap in the blinds I saw men in military fatigues handing round what looked like machine guns from the backs of cars. Had we stumbled on a secret Mafia gun-swap? As more men arrived and assembled more items of uniform, I concluded that these were probably army reservists of some kind, and that the ‘agricultural’ building beside us was actually their firing range. I plucked up courage and took Charlie out for a morning walk, and the weekend soldiers looked at me curiously. They were friendly enough, but we still decided it was time for a prompt move to somewhere a bit less heavily armed for breakfast.

Torre Pozzella overnight spot

A mile or so along the coast we stopped in the same large carpark that we had left during the ‘motorgiata’ last night, and breakfasted while watching the myriad Sunday leisure activities going on around us. Never imagine that you will get a quiet Sunday lie-in at an Italian coastal location. We had the group of quad bikes, the group of motorcross bikes and the group of mountain bikes. We had the ubiquitous fishermen and various dogwalkers, plus the jogging club. We’d already had the men with guns, so when four horsemen came riding over the dunes it all felt a bit apocalyptic!

 Fossil shells in rock at Torre Pozzella

We went back into Ostuni for the day on Sunday 13th February, passing by what looked like very old olive groves  from the distorted and twisted tree trunks. Amongst the olive trees we noticed signs of spring with almond trees blossoming. Going out for a meal on a Sunday afternoon seems popular here, so we were happy to adopt local customs. In fact there were a good number of strolling families and couples in the mediaeval old town, although as it was still only a chilly mid-February the carparks and alleys were far from full. The streets periodically filled and emptied as one or other church ended its service, but by 1 o’clock people were heading for the restaurants. We chose a busy little place in an old building with views over the whitewashed rooftops, and had their mixed starter, which arrived on a series of about eight tiny plates, followed by the house speciality pasta dishes – in fact 80% of the other diners seemed to be ordering exactly the same so we felt we couldn’t go wrong. One and a half hours later we emerged blinking into the light, and resumed our wander around the quiet alleyways.

 Ostuni from a distance

Ostuni, or ‘la città bianca’, as it calls itself, is indeed white. Its limewashed historic centre sits quite compactly on the highest hill, while the rest of the town lounges across the lower parts of the ridge. We wandered up the narrow, stone paved streets on a winding route to the cathedral at the top of the town. As we passed beneath the many buttresses, which seem to hold the old town together, we wondered how they might have gone about gaining permission to lean their houses against each other and whether the whole lot would tumble like cards if you took one away. Every now and then we would turn a corner and chance upon a pretty little courtyard, small piazza or a panoramic view across the surrounding flat countryside and the sea.

Ostuni views

We left this coastal area on Monday and headed across the hills, home to more of these dazzling white towns, where the historic centres were like smaller versions of Ostuni. The first one we stopped at was Cisternino, which has a Norman keep and restaurants which specialise in ‘fornello pronto’ – meats cooked to order from a sort of butcher’s counter inside the restaurant. It didn’t strike us that it was Valentine’s Day until we reached the next white town, Locorotondo, and we were prevented from accessing the motorhome parking area because schools were chucking out for the end of the day, and we spotted several of the girls carrying elaborately wrapped single blooms of various kinds. The town itself had a tiny historic centre, which took us all of quarter of an hour to walk round since it was completely closed for the afternoon.

Cisternino on market day and Locorotondo stairways

By this time we were most definitely in trulli country. There had been some invisible line just outside Ostuni, after which these surreal structures began to appear in rural areas as dwellings or storehouses. There are actually an infinite number of stupid comments you can make involving the word ‘trulli’. We couldn’t stop ourselves since these buildings were amazing, remarkable and bizarre, all of which can be prefixed with… well, enough said. However, on stopping in Alberobello, where whole districts of the town consist of nothing but trulli, we did, in fact, completely run out of words. It was nothing like we had imagined. Hundreds of these white conical houses, like giant upturned acorn cups, lined street after street (although the heart of town is a more conventional affair, with only the occasional pointy roof lurking amongst the shops and offices). All they needed were a few fairies, a couple of elves and the odd dwarf to complete the fantasy picture.

Alberobello at night

Alberobello is in fact well on the tourist circuit, and with good reason. Even the Japanese coach parties and wall of tourist knick-knack shops in the main trullo district cannot detract from the appealing oddness of the place. We stayed, alone as usual, on a very central area di sosta camper for €18 a night – after Greece the prices here seem huge – which was fine, except the owner came and (politely) asked us to take our washing in as the site wasn’t authorised for camping-like activities!

Alberobello views

The surrounding countryside is also filled with trulli, which are the standard form of rural building in this part of central Puglia. They occur sometimes singly, sometimes grouped around a farmyard, sometimes erupting in clumps of six or more above the same ground-level chamber and looking like the weird mausolea of some forgotten civilisation. However, the true trulli only occur in this one area and as we travelled across the border from Puglia into the province of Basilicata they vanished from the landscape as suddenly as they had begun.

Rural trulli

Matera was for many years the capital of Basilicata. It lost that honour in the early 1800s, but those days have left it with a fine core of baroque churches and squares to rival many in Italy. What draws the visitors however are the sassi, two areas of densely-packed, largely ruined housing, that cascade down the sides of ravines below the town centre, and that are largely built into and over caves hollowed out of the soft rock of the gorges. The sassi began life with a few monastic buildings constructed in these steep slopes below the town, and were followed by ordinary housing that reached ever more inhospitable sites as the population increased. By the early 20th century Matera’s sassi were notorious, miserable slums, and were forcibly cleared in the 1950s with the resettlement of their population into new flats in the upper town. Since then, tourism has taken off and in some parts at least the sassi have been cleaned up and repopulated with hotels, holiday flats, restaurants and artists’ studios. A great many buildings still stand empty though, and in the furthest reaches of the Sasso Caveoso especially, scores of empty windows still gawp out from stone walls built directly into the hillsides.

Matera - Sasso Caveoso views

First impressions, from one of the many belvederes in the upper town, are of an endless mass of grey-yellow buildings the colour of the cliffs themselves, occupying every inch of space below you. It struck us that they are not as ‘cavey’ as we expected, but that is because they all have stone façades but these may be thin, disguising a hillside cave just a metre or two behind. A couple have been ‘restored’ to illustrate former living conditions, but although you can see the cramped, windowless rooms it is hard to imagine real life here and in the teeming alleys beyond.

Matera - Sasso Barisano and view from cave near chiese rupestre carpark

We stayed one night at a camper stop just outside the town – only €15 this time and we didn’t try any clothes washing - and met the first other British motorhomers since Southern Greece. The next night however we went back to wild camping, at a viewpoint outside Matera, only a stone’s throw from the sassi but separated from them by a deep wild gorge and 6 kilometres by road. The evening and morning views were spoilt only by the torrential rain and blasting gale that continued all night, and which ended a run of brilliant weather we’d enjoyed since arriving in Italy two weeks earlier.

Matera – overnight at viewpoint

We left Matera on the morning of Friday 18th February, heading across the rain-lashed Italian peninsula towards Naples.

Matera - skull detail from Chiesa del Purgatorio (Church of Purgatory)

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